Sixth in a series of articles about candidates for mayor.
By now, many Baltimore voters have heard the glittering resume of Thiru Vignarajah. The son of immigrant schoolteachers, he went on to attend Ivy League universities, seize a coveted spot as a U.S. Supreme Court clerk, and pursue a career prosecuting criminals at the city, state and federal levels.
He hasn’t won election since law school, but he’s raised hundreds of thousands dollars more than most other candidates in a crowded race to become Baltimore’s next mayor. Vignarajah, 43, a Democrat, has emerged as a favorite among white voters, in particular.
But as he runs on his record of public service, questions also have been raised about his judgment.
They are fueled by highly publicized incidents in 2015 and 2019, both captured on video. In the first, he was recorded with a woman in a hotel room as she prodded him to give up secrets from his work in the Maryland attorney general’s office. Attorney General Brian Frosh defended his deputy.
In the second, Vignarajah was pulled over by Baltimore police in the middle of the night and recorded asking an officer to turn off his body-worn camera. Vignarajah has said he thought the traffic stop was over when he made the request.
The Baltimore Sun has found that Vignarajah also is shadowed by questions about his behavior toward subordinates. In interviews with The Sun, seven attorneys who worked under him said he was a controlling and unreasonably demanding boss, one who would surround himself with young lawyers and press them to work all night and take his phone calls after-hours.
In response, Vignarajah said he has supervised nearly 200 interns and law clerks in the past decade without incident.
“There was never a complaint, formal or informal, in any place I’ve ever worked,” Vignarajah said. “For these false, insulting claims to surface just as voting begins in a hotly contested mayoral race is as transparently political as it is untrue.”
He added, “I have never thought of public service, and government work on any level, as some cushy 9-to-5 job with long lunch breaks … This city has had a few too many 9 to 5ers who took long lunch breaks. And if that’s what people want, there is a menu of options on the ballot. That’s not me. I work day and night and every weekend.”
To supporters, Vignarajah’s a political outsider with keen intellect, a data-minded problem solver. Even as a candidate, they say, he gets results.
When a ransomware attack last year hobbled the city’s water billing system, Vignarajah released a database of earlier water bills so customers could look up past payments and know how much they were likely to owe.
He published online the forms to help residents expunge minor crimes from their records. And city officials halted the demolition of bandleader Cab Calloway’s dilapidated childhood home after Vignarajah demanded they make good on a promise to hear from the public.
He’s consumed by his work, sleeps little and lives in a small Federal Hill condo. Even after he became a partner at a big law firm at a half-million-dollar salary, he drove a Toyota Camry.
Vignarajah doesn’t eat meat or drink alcohol. He calls his decision to abstain “a measure of discipline.” When elected president of the Harvard Law Review — 14 years after Barack Obama held the post — Vignarajah allowed himself a sip of Champagne.
His campaign resonates among supporters for its drumbeat of “Stop the Killings” and “End the Corruption.” After the coronavirus shut down the U.S. economy, Vignarajah wrote a 35-page recovery plan for Baltimore.
With the Democratic primary approaching, The Sun spoke with more than a dozen people who worked under Vignarajah during his career as a prosecutor. Most of these attorneys spoke on the condition of anonymity. Some said they worry about professional retaliation; others, that their jobs in government preclude them from speaking freely.
Their opinions varied widely. To some, the experience working for him — admittedly a challenge — proved invaluable in the end.
“The type of expectations that he had for us are very much in line with what you would expect from a partner going through trial,” said Anna Stressenger, a former intern who is now a private attorney in Washington.
While work as a criminal prosecutor demands long days and late nights, seven of the attorneys interviewed said his demands were unreasonable. Three of those called his behavior “abusive,” saying they saw him yell at one young woman.
Another woman said he presented “loyalty tests." Would she stay to work all night?
“It was more of a control of your time, and a control of everything you’re doing. You aren’t going to be going home when you want to be going home. He can and will call you at any time,” she said.
Stephanie Maddox, a former University of Baltimore law student, said she was dismayed to see fellow interns work around the clock without pay.
“I was the only one of the group to say, ‘You guys are crazy. He’s taking advantage of you,'" said Maddox, today a private attorney in Southern Maryland.
Vignarajah makes no apologies for setting high standards for himself and his staff.
His campaign provided the names of more than 30 people willing to speak on his behalf, including Wanda Keyes Heard, retired chief judge of the Baltimore Circuit Court. The list includes classmates on the Harvard Law Review, as well as 10 people who worked as his interns. Some returned calls to speak highly of him. So did Jill Green, who ran the internship program at University of Baltimore School of Law.
Green said she received no complaints from his interns. “Students were clamoring to go.”
In 2011, Baltimore State’s Attorney Gregg Bernstein recruited Vignarajah from the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland. Vignarajah was tasked with building a unit to prosecute street gangs. He was an outsider and not beholden to the old ways.
Over the next four years, Vignarajah prosecuted some of the city’s big cases. He saw Darnell Sewell put away for 60 years for indiscriminately shooting up the streets of South Baltimore. He saw half brothers Danyae Robinson and Derrick Brown sentenced to life in prison for firing on a crowd and killing a 12-year-old.
In 2013, Vignarajah joined city leaders on a besieged Greenmount Avenue to announce the takedown of the Black Guerrilla Family gang. However, while authorities indicted 48 people, more than a quarter of the defendants went free. Of those convicted, only three received sentences of more than five years. Vignarajah noted Bernstein lost the 2014 Democratic primary to Marilyn Mosby, and her staff took over the cases.
“There were a lot of cases that had been started before the transition that didn’t conclude in the way we thought,” he said. “It was frustrating to watch.”
His former bosses Bernstein and Frosh declined to comment for this article. Former U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein hired Vignarajah in 2009 for a two-year post prosecuting Baltimore street gangs.
“You don’t see a lot of candidates with the kind of qualifications Thiru had,” Rosenstein said recently. “Not only did he have exceptional academic credentials, he also had long-standing ties to Baltimore."
Vignarajah’s first try for elected office came nearly two years ago, when he challenged Mosby. He received less than a quarter of the vote.
Ten months later, he announced his bid for mayor. He’s meticulous in drafting plans, with exhaustive proposals on taxes, water bills, marijuana legalization, trash pickup — even electronic cigarettes. His crime plan is six pages longer than that of the police commissioner.
In a city that suffers more than 300 killings a year, Vignarajah understands Baltimore’s next mayor will be judged by the homicide rate.
He proposes flooding the city’s 12 deadliest neighborhoods with undercover officers to buy drugs in the winter. He believes this will lead to law enforcement obtaining wiretaps on the phones of violent gang members, producing indictments before the killing months of May to August.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Elect him and he’ll reduce murders to less than 200 by the end of his four-year term, Vignarajah pledges. Or else, he says, he won’t run again.
Coming next: GOP candidates
Experience: special assistant to U.S. attorney for Maryland; chief of major investigations, Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office; deputy Maryland attorney general; partner at DLA Piper.
Education: Yale University and Harvard Law School.
Family: Separated, one son.